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College celebrates a century of winter carnival

SHORTLY AFTER THEY WERE CROWNED, this Winter Carnival royalty smile for a picture during a previous Middlebury College Winter Carnival Weekend. Members of the college’s senior class would select a carnival queen and king to be coronated during the popular winter weekend.
Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

MIDDLEBURY — When Patricia Palmer was a student at Middlebury College in the 1950s, the third weekend in February was one to remember. Students eagerly awaited Winter Carnival Weekend, a three-day event filled with skiing competitions, snow sculptures, a grand ball, many live bands performing at social houses, and lots of parties. 

“It was the weekend, the party weekend of the year. Unforgettable memories,” Palmer recalled of the event. “Carnival Weekend was the biggest social event of the year bar none.” 

The winter tradition had begun three decades earlier, in 1923, when students began planning a weekend filled with events that would welcome the start of the spring semester and make use of the ample snowfall Vermont was famous for. The carnival combined sporting and social events and was so well-known it attracted students from throughout New England. 

This year’s event, scheduled for Feb. 17-19, marks the college’s 100th winter carnival. 

‘THE BIGGEST EVENT’

Middlebury College officially hosted its first iteration of the winter carnival in 1920. That event was originally called “Winter Holiday,” and, along with similar events at Dartmouth and Williams colleges, is believed to be among the oldest student-run carnivals in the country. Since its inception, the three-day carnival has been filled with activities like hockey games, ice skating, snow sculpting, versions of broom hockey, as well as plenty of on-campus parties and big social dances. 

The carnival started out as a modest event, but by the 1950s had grown immensely in scale and popularity. Roth “T” Tall, Middlebury College class of 1965, said the carnival’s social activities were particularly popular. 

“It was the biggest event by far. Larger than Homecoming, Parents’ weekend (as it then was called) and Spring Weekend. And it definitely was considered the highlight by most students,” Tall said in a recent interview. 

The Carnival Ball, a formal dance to which students eagerly sought to get a date, was the social highlight.

“The Carnival Ball was just as you might expect — the dressiest dresses, a live band, great decorations. Many invited their boyfriends or girlfriends from other colleges for the weekend,” Palmer said.

But it wasn’t all black tie and slow dancing. Another dance party, the Klondike Rush, featured pop music of the times and dancing late into the night. Students would often show up in their ski clothes or casual attire and party the night away. Popular bands were hired to play at the event, some of whom would go on to play for national audiences. 

“We hired a small, unknown Irish singing group in 1962 to play three nights on campus. Only a handful of students attended their Thursday gig. By Saturday, it was standing room only. Their name? The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. They went on to become an integral part of the American folk music revival,” Tall recalled. 

A POSTER FROM Middlebury College’s 1947 Winter Carnival alerts students to a highly-anticipated weekend ahead. In the 40s and 50s, the event was the biggest social weekend of the school year. Later this month, the college will host its 100th Winter Carnival Weekend.
Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

SLALOMS AT THE BOWL

Equally well-attended were the skiing competitions. In 1934, Middlebury College began hosting ski and ski-jumping events at Chipman Hill as well as snowshoe and obstacle races on Storrs Avenue. Rival ski teams from throughout New England would come to compete in the contests, and students would flock to the hill to watch the races. 

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the competitions had moved to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl. 

“Almost everyone took in the races at the Bowl, and everyone came in buses to watch the ski jumping on Sunday morning,” said Karl Lindholm, Middlebury ’67. “Dozens of school buses would take students to Bread Loaf and the Snow Bowl, especially the Snow Bowl.”

Some years, the college would host the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association Championships during winter carnival. Student interest in the ski events was particularly high during those years as teams from Dartmouth College, Williams, UVM and other New England colleges were vying for the championship title in addition to the Middlebury Carnival trophy. 

“We genuinely cared about ski team results,” Lindholm said. “In the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, Middlebury and Dartmouth reigned.” 

Perhaps the most popular of the events was the ski jump. The Chipman Hill ski area featured a 35-meter jump in 1935. In later years, the operation would move to a 55-meter Nordic ski jump at the Snow Bowl, which was built in 1948.

“It was the final event of Carnival on Saturday afternoon. It drew a capacity crowd of students and the local community.  The jump was the high point of Carnival and a terrific community event,” said Richard Crumb, who attended Middlebury College in the 1960s. 

Crumb became fairly familiar with the ski jump as a member of the college’s ski patrol. His job included keeping an eye on the jumpers, who didn’t wear helmets during the event. 

“Patrol duty at the jump involved doing very basic concussion protocol (how many fingers? what did you have for breakfast?) on jumpers who landed on their heads (not uncommon),” Crumb explained. 

The ski events weren’t just popular amongst students. Tall said the weekend’s races often brought in a large crowd from off-campus as well. 

“Not only did it attract students, but many others from Addison County and around the state,” he said. “Cars were parked down Route 125 halfway to Bread Loaf. The State Police kindly looked ‘the other way.’ A crowd of 3,000 was not unusual.” 

Winter carnival weekend was filled with other activities as well. Fraternities on campus would participate in snow sculpture contests, shaping all the snow they could find into Pepsi cans, wizards, Greek goddesses, and whatever else fit that year’s theme. The senior class also would elect students to reign as Carnival Queen and King, who were crowned at the Carnival Ball. And student skaters spent hours rehearsing in anticipation for the weekend’s ice show. 

To plan such a large event, students spent months ironing out the details. For many years, students in the college’s Mountain Club led the charge. 

“No sooner did you arrive on campus your first year when you were heavily recruited by upperclassmen and women to join the Mountain Club. You then were assigned to a committee to plan and execute Carnival five months later,” Tall said of the process. 

Non-Mountain Club members also took part in planning the event, so much so that in the 1950s, carnival committees were made up of nearly the entire student body. 

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENTS gather for a bonfire and fireworks show during the college’s 2019 Winter Carnival Weekend. This year’s event, scheduled for Feb. 17-19, will be the college’s 100th winter carnival.
Photo courtesy of Todd Balfour/Middlebury College

CHANGING TIMES 

As in most things, a lot has changed for Middlebury College’s winter carnival in the past century.

Some years, late February weather did not yield enough snow for snow-sculpture making contests, and the lack of snow at Chipman Hill forced all events up to the Snow Bowl by the late 1940s. The abolishment of fraternities in 1991 quieted many of the carnival’s iconic parties, and the emergence of counterculture in the 1960s began eroding the popularity of more traditional events like the Carnival Ball and electing carnival royalty.

“The late ’60s and early ’70s, the era of Vietnam protests, really changed a lot of campus life — traditions, social conventions,” recalled Lindholm, who was dean of students for two decades. “I think Carnival went from being huge to still important with some traditional, if less grand, events.” 

Things changed for the winter carnival again in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Addison County just weeks after the college wrapped up its usual festivities. Carnivals that have taken place since the start of the pandemic have looked slightly different, with socially distanced or virtual events replacing traditional ones. 

This year’s carnival will also look different than others, as the college will not host any skiing events during carnival weekend. The men’s and women’s alpine and Nordic ski teams will instead head to Williams College to compete at the Williams Carnival — a change that was initiated a couple of years ago, when the 12 colleges of the D-1 schools in New England’s petitioned to also host a winter carnival. Since there are only six carnivals per year, two of the original six colleges (Middlebury being one of those original six) are having to sit out a couple of years to cycle the other colleges in the mix. Middlebury’s 100th Winter Carnival just happened to be one of the years Middlebury is not hosting a meet.)

Though the popular skiing events will be absent from this year’s carnival, college officials say they’re excited for the return of other traditional carnival activities. David Wilder, the college’s director of programming and events, has been helping students on the Middlebury College Activities Board organize some of the carnival events and said he’s looking forward to bringing back the Carnival Ball this year from its COVID-hiatus. 

Wilder said the ball is still a popular event, attracting 1,500 students prior to the pandemic.  

And he’s excited about other returning favorites, too.

“We’re definitely trying to make as many outdoor activities as possible this year, especially in light of Middlebury not hosting the ski races.” 

THE WINTER CARNIVAL ice show in 2018. Photo by Brett Simison

ICE SHOW’S ENDURING CHARM

One such event is the return of the ice show, which is the primary carnival event open to the public (along with hockey and basketball games, of course.) The ice show used to consist of solely student performers, though public participation has swelled over the last two decades. 

Anna Harrington, an assistant registrar at the college and a coach in the ice show, said she started participating in the show as a young performer around 25 years ago when the college first invited the children and family of faculty to participate. Today, the Middlebury College Figure Skating Club offers lessons to community members (mainly kids) that begin in November and end with the ice show in February. 

“We invite people to learn to skate and then work with students to put together one cohesive show,” she said. “The show itself is sort of 50-50 between our local community program and the student club of skaters.” 

The theme for this year’s ice show is “Midd Century,” which Harrington said will honor and celebrate 100 years of the ice show and winter carnival at the college. 

“We are taking music and numbers from decades throughout the Carnival’s history… to accent how that history mirrors Middlebury College,” she said. 

Performances in the works for this year’s show include a program set to a Beach Boys track that acknowledges Middlebury College’s ties to California following its acquisition of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. The ice show will also feature a few guest skaters and a performance from Middlebury College skater Ting Cui, who recently competed at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif. 

This renewal of an older tradition has Harrington excited.

“I think that we’re all looking forward to that sense of community or camaraderie that we get during the show,” she said. “You get to see peoples’ parents, the facilities staff and the Zamboni drivers that all support the show. It’s the community part of it that’s exciting for me, getting to see everyone that you don’t always see.”

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